How To Write An Effective Film Noir Screenplay


Film noir is derived from the French term for black film. More appropriately, it refers do dark film which explores negative stories of corruption, corrosion of society and evil.

As you might imagine, these movies are not fun-filled with happy endings. They were largely produced in the decade following World War II (1945 – 1955).

Film Noir are typified by a bleak, dark mood. They are filled with pessimism, hopelessness and nihilism. They deal with the pain and misery of post war life. They deal with moral ambiguity, emotional turmoil and a world trying to reset itself into normality.

These film scripts are still a popular screenwriting genre, mainly due to their highly stylized nature. Some purists technically classify film noir as crime drama or thrillers. Instead, they claim film noir is a style characterized by shadows, obscure lighting, cigarette smoke and whiskey glasses.

What Are The Key Features Of Film Noir?

COLOR

They are typically shot in black and white. If not they are shot in sepia tones or desaturated, muted color palettes. The costume design is similarly dark to reinforce the mood.

DUBIOUS MORALITY

Film noir screenplays are often populated with shady characters desperate to survive. Although they may not all be overt gangsters, noir characters are often engaged in questionable activities. Sometimes they are anti-heroes, while other times they are heroes with a spurious moral compass in a place where the difference between right and wrong is unclear.

TIME OF DAY

Film noir movies are typically set at night. This is a conscious stylistic device to highlight secrets, hidden agendas and muted emotions. The characters are wild animals that sleep during the day when most people are awake and come out at night.

LOCATION

The locations most frequently featured in noir screenplays are dank hotel rooms, smoky dive bars, diners and dimly lit back alleys.  Locations are often in the sketchy part of big cities; the urban grit where the underbelly lives.

CHARACTERS

The characters are frequently psychologically scarred and socially marginalized. They are often single (or in unhappy relationships), are unemployed or stuck in unsatisfying jobs and fatalistic in their outlook on life. Pretty depressing.

The FEMALE CHARACTERS tend to fall into two categories: dutiful wives, secretaries and assistants (dressed in lighter colors) and femme fatales, the highly attractive, seductive, manipulative woman who cause harm to men who become involved with them.

The MALE CHARACTERS tend to wear ill-fitting dark box suits and ties, they drink and smoke too much, are marginalized and emotionally repressed. They may be criminals, victims, or both.

SEXUALITY

There is deep understated sexuality in film noir. Much of it is passionate and illicit, but not necessarily related to love. Noir characters use sex to escape the drudgery of daily life. It is angry, passionate and animalistic. There are often love triangles and extra marital affairs in film noir screenplays.

DETAILS

Noir films are often crime dramas. There are seemingly insignificant or understated characters and motifs and objects which gain significance during the film. They are often hidden, lost, misplaced or murdered.

STORYLINES

They typically revolve around crime and the underworld. The plots are often complex and non-linear and don’t fully resolve themselves at the end of the movie script. There are numerous twists, unrelated subplots which enhance the negative mood rather than the storyline.

VOICEOVERS

This is often narration. A main character revealing their inner most thoughts, but mainly to unpack backstory. How did love interests meet, how did someone get involved with gangsters or how did someone die. Other times it’s straight up exposition.

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